Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

Blur of Riders - Tour de France 1995 - 02

Photo: A blurred image taken at the 1995 Tour de France. Pantani was in the peleton somewhere, although almost certainly not in this image. See below for more.

A few days ago, I was watching a stage of the Giro D’Italia live on Eurosport. It was a mountain stage – one of three stages in this year’s Giro celebrating, or perhaps, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. You could almost hear the intake of breath from Eurosport’s commentator, Rob Hatch as he introduced a segment that Eurosport’s producers were going to play in on a split screen during an otherwise quiet moment in the race’s live coverage ahead of a big climb.

Hatch knew that even just playing the clip would cause some very strong feelings among viewers. Then we watched some highlights of Pantani on that same climb in a past Giro, sweeping up the hill. A little later, Hatch told us that his Twitter feed had indeed exploded.

“Il Pirata” was a cyclist who still divides those who follow the sport. He had an undoubted innate ability, and was unquestionably the leading climber of his time. Yet he was a product of the EPO generation, and his life ended far too soon with Pantani addicted to cocaine, hoovering up vast amounts of the stuff that would eventually kill him in an off season hotel room in Rimini.

As such, I find it hard to stomach some of the respect that is being paid to the rider. While he was incredibly talented, I’m certain that I’d never want a “commemorative” pink jersey bearing his name such as that one Rapha has released recently. That just feels a little unhealthy. Let’s face it, you don’t see too many people wearing Livestrong gear these days either.

Pantani’s is undoubtedly a tragic story. And cycling is full of legends. The sport creates them to an extent few other sports can ever truly manage. Yet I find some of this very uncomfortable, and because of that, I’m not sure I’d raise him to the very highest pantheons of the sport.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is a new documentary that was released in cinemas a week or so ago, timed to coincide with this year’s Giro D’Italia. A race that started so successfully in Belfast and Dublin, and concludes this weekend in Trieste.

I had planned on seeing the film in the cinema, but even during its first week of release, it was only available in very limited number of screenings. Somewhat ironically, Curzon, who were showing it in several of their sites, managed to only have screenings at weekends that actually clashed with live coverage of this year’s Giro! In other words, the very people who were likely to want to see the documentary would probably be found in front of a television watching this year’s coverage at the time it was being screened.

Fortunately the cinema release was really only there to get some media coverage, because the film was released on DVD and Blu-Ray earlier this week. So I watched it at home. I suspect that given Channel 4 seems to have partly funded it, it’ll end up on television sometime around this year’s Tour de France.

Anyhow, logistics aside, what’s it like as a film?

It’s based on Matt Rendell’s excellent 2006 book The Death of Marco Pantani, and the film features interviews and some narration from Rendell. It’s a fairly evenly told story, telling of Pantani’s discovery of how good he was at cycling as a child, through to his emergence onto the professional circuit and his arrival at the Grand Tours – the big races that every rider wants to perform at. It also details the appalling crash that Pantani suffered which nearly ended his career before it had properly got started.

Inevitably, the film simplifies the story to fit into a 90 minute runtime. While this is fine to a large extent, I don’t think that the film quite gets under Pantani’s skin and explains what makes him tick to the extent that the book does. And I’m not sure that Pantani’s superstar status in his home country quite comes across.

On the other hand, the film does of course benefit from numerous clips of Pantani racing, as well as contemporaneous interviews with him and others. We also hear from his mother as well as other friends and colleagues from his career. These all certainly mean that it makes a great companion piece to the book and well worth watching.

The nature of a documentary like this is that the film has to be made up largely of archival clips alongside some new interviews. Where it perhaps falls down a little is the use of an actor playing Pantani on some of the climbs as an illustration mechanism. I preferred not to see an actor but either just a bike wheel on a climb or even the point-of-view shots of what the various mountain stages actually look like on quiet days when there’s no crowds lining the sides of the road. Seeing an actor who looked a bit – but not really like Pantani just didn’t work for me.

I also felt that there were a few too many camera tricks to energise some of the segments of racing. Just showing the video would have been fine. Films like Senna have shown what can be achieved using archive footage alone, with new interviews just added as sound.

But I’m being picky. The producers and director did make one interesting choice, which was to dub on sound effects of bicycles being ridden. And it was quite refreshing. If you watch televised cycling you rarely actually hear the sound of the bicycles, because the camera is usually on a motorbike which drowns all the other sound out – or even a helicopter. I found it quite an interesting idea to hear the sound of a chain being turned during an attack even if it was added in an edit suite.

The construction of the documentary was fine. Sometimes I find it a little forced if we always have to start at the end and work backwards, although that’s actually how the book was written!

And I think the film handles the cases for the “prosecution” and “defence” quite evenly. Yes he was the best climber of his generation, and yes he was a knowing member of the EPO set – actually probably also a generation since so many were taking the drug. In fact, although in a piece towards the end Rendell lays out the case for why it must have been nearly impossible for Pantani not to have been pressured into taking drugs by team managers, rivals, sponsors and doctors, I think the book did a better job of painting Pantani as – well – not the brightest spark in the world. Maybe it’s not right, but the smarter you are, the less sympathy I have for you if you do wrong.

Remarkably, Lance Armstrong manages to come out of this film worse than anyone else, and certainly Pantani. He barely features, but a throw away comment and his behaviour to someone who was certainly up there with him, shows what a vindictive man he could be.

Overall, if you like to watch professional cycling, then I’d recommend seeing this film. It’s not quite as polished at The Armstrong Lie, but it’s still a worthy piece. At time of writing I believe that it’s still in cinemas in some parts of the country. But otherwise, pick up the DVD or Blu-Ray. Fortunately they were the same price at Amazon. However, given the amount of archival standard resolution footage, I wouldn’t pay over the odds to watch it in HD.

Personally, I loved the drama of watching Pantani going up a mountain. His ridiculous bursts of speed. The seeming impulsiveness of his attacks. Yet I was never a massive fan of his. I don’t know why, but

I thought that I’d never seen Pantani race in the flesh. But actually, as the documentary shows, Pantani raced in the 1995 Tour de France. I watched the riders process the on a neutralised stage of that year’s Tour, the day after the tragic death of Fabio Casartelli in the Pyranees. As I’ve mentioned before, that day saw Casartelli’s Motorola team, with Lance Armstrong among them, ride out ahead of the peleton as they respectfully rolled across the finish line. Somewhere in the midst of the blurred photo above may – or may not – be Pantani. But that was the only time I “saw” him.

So I respected him, but never loved him. I was still shocked by his death in 2004 though, and he was an incredible rider.